OneCoin is a Ponzi scheme promoted as a cryptocurrency by Bulgaria-based offshore companies OneCoin Ltd (registered in Dubai) and OneLife Network Ltd (registered in Belize), both founded by Ruja Ignatova in concert with Sebastian Greenwood. OneCoin is considered a Ponzi scheme due to its organisational structure and because of the previous involvement of many of those central to OneCoin in similar schemes. It was described by The Times as "one of the biggest scams in history".
US prosecutors have alleged the scheme brought in approximately $4 billion worldwide. In China, law enforcement recovered 1.7 billion yuan (US$267.5 million) while prosecuting 98 people. Ignatova disappeared in 2017 near the time a secret US warrant was filed for her arrest and her brother, Konstantin Ignatov took her position. Most of the leaders have now disappeared or been arrested, though Ignatova has escaped arrest. Greenwood was arrested in 2018, as was Konstantin Ignatov in March 2019. In November 2019, Ignatov pleaded guilty to charges of money laundering and fraud. The total maximum sentence for the charges is 90 years in prison.
OneCoin was launched in late 2014. It was not a decentralized cryptocurrency, but rather a centralized currency hosted on OneCoin Ltd's servers.
According to OneCoin, its main business was selling educational material for trading. Members are able to buy educational packages ranging from 100 euros to 118,000 euros, or, according to one industry blog, 225,500 euros. Each package includes "tokens" which can be assigned to "mine" OneCoins. OneCoin is said to be mined by servers at two sites in Bulgaria and one site in Hong Kong. Each level (except six and seven), or package, gives new educational material, which is plagiarized from several sources. However, in a typical OneCoin recruiting meeting, recruiters mainly talk about investing in cryptocurrency and the educational material is barely mentioned.
The only way to exchange Onecoins for any other currency was OneCoin Exchange, xcoinx, an internal marketplace for members who had invested more than just a starter package. Onecoins could be exchanged for euros, which were placed in a virtual wallet from which they could be requested for wire transfer. The marketplace had daily selling limits based on which packages the seller had invested in, which greatly limited the amount of onecoins which could be exchanged.
On 1 March 2016, without notice, OneCoin issued an internal notice that the market would be closed for two weeks for maintenance, explaining that this was necessary due to the high number of miners and for "better integration with blockchain". On 15 March 2016, the market opened again but no visible changes had been made; most of the transactions expired as before and daily limits stayed on.
Legal issues and criticism
On 30 September 2015, Bulgaria's Financial Supervision Commission (FSC) issued a warning of potential risks in new cryptocurrencies, citing OneCoin as an example. After the warning, OneCoin ceased all activity in Bulgaria and started to use banks in foreign countries to handle wire transfers from participants.
The company and the scheme is on the observation lists of many authorities; among them are authorities in Bulgaria, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Latvia. Authorities in many countries have warned of potential risks involved in businesses like OneCoin and undertaken prosecutions against persons linked to OneCoin, including CEO Ruja Ignatova and her brother Konstantin Ignatov.
In December 2016, the Italian Antitrust Authority (Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato) "adopted an interim injunction against the company One Network Services Ltd., active in the promotion and dissemination of cryptocurrency OneCoin", and its representatives in Italy, describing their activities as an "illegal pyramid sales system" ("sistema di vendita piramidale vietato dalla legge"), and ordering them to cease promoting and selling OneCoin in Italy On 27 February 2017, after concluding their investigation, AGCM banned all activity on OneCoin until further notice.
In December 2016, the Hungarian Central Bank issued a warning that OneCoin is a pyramid scheme, and in China that same year several members and investors of OneCoin were arrested and US$30.8 million worth of assets seized.
In March 2017, the Croatian National Bank (HNB) advised the public to "exercise a high degree of caution" in decisions involving OneCoin, noted that OneCoin operations are not supervised by the HNB, and warned that possible losses will be fully borne by the investors.
On 23 April 2017, Indian police arrested 18 people in Navi Mumbai for organizing a OneCoin recruitment event. The police attended the event undercover to judge the accusations before they decided to act. Further investigation was begun with the intent of revealing the higher levels of the pyramid. In May, the investigation recovered Rs 24.57 crores ($3.32 million USD) in nine bank accounts. A further Rs 75 crores ($10.12 million USD) were transferred out before authorities were able to seize it. Early in the month of May two more people were arrested and a further Rs 24 crores ($3.24 million USD) were seized from bank accounts. A special investigation team of 15 individuals including 4 assistant police inspectors was formed under Senior Police Inspector Shivaji Awate with the stated goal of following the money trail and possibly lead to further arrests.
On 27 April 2017, Germany's Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin) issued cease and desist orders to Onecoin Ltd, Dubai, and OneLife Network Ltd, Belize. The Authority concluded that trading in OneCoins was fraudulent "own funds" trading.
On 29 May 2017, International Financial Services Commission of Belize (IFSC) issued a warning about OneLife Network Ltd conducting trading business without license or permission from IFSC or any other authority. OneLife Network Ltd was directed to cease and desist from carrying on with the illegal trading business.
On 16 June 2017, the CEO of OneCoin Ltd. claimed OneCoin was licensed by the Vietnamese government, that it was legally permissible to use them as a digital currency and that it was the first cryptocurrency in Asia officially licensed by any government. On 20 June 2017, Vietnam's Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI) issued a statement that the document which OneCoin used as proof was forged. They stated that the document was against the MPI regulations and that the person who supposedly signed the document was not in the position claimed by the document at the time when the document was created. MPI warned individuals and enterprises to be vigilant if they encounter the document during business.
On 10 July 2017, Ruja Ignatova, the CEO, was charged in India with duping investors as a part of the Indian investigation.
On 17 and 18 January 2018, Bulgarian police raided OneCoin's office in Sofia at the request of the prosecutor's office in Bielefeld, Germany. German police and Europol took part in the bust and the investigation. Also 14 other companies, tied to OneCoin, were investigated and 50 witnesses were questioned. OneCoin's servers and other material evidence were seized.
On 3 May 2018, the Central Bank of Samoa (CBS) banned all foreign exchange transactions related to OneCoin and OneLife. The bank had earlier in March issued a warning about OneCoin. CBS describes OneCoin as a very high risk pyramid scheme.
On 21 November 2019 the New York Federal Court found lawyer Mark Scott guilty of money laundering and bank fraud for his role in routing US$400m out of the US.
On 24 November 2019 the BBC published a detailed investigation of OneCoin and Ignatova titled "Cryptoqueen: How this woman scammed the world, then vanished". The reporters believe that Ignatova resides in Frankfurt under a false identity.
In May 2022, Europol added Ignatova to their "Europe's Most Wanted" list, offering a €5,000 reward for information leading to her arrest. On June 30, the Federal Bureau of Investigation added Ignatova to the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, offering a reward of up to $100,000 for information leading to her arrest.
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